By Adam Bear
In a classic paper published almost 20 years ago, the psychologists Dan Wegner and Thalia Wheatley made a revolutionary proposal: The experience of intentionally willing an action, they suggested, is often nothing more than a post hoc causal inference that our thoughts caused some behavior. The feeling itself, however, plays no causal role in producing that behavior. This could sometimes lead us to think we made a choice when we actually didn’t or think we made a different choice than we actually did.
But there’s a mystery here. Suppose, as Wegner and Wheatley propose, that we observe ourselves (unconsciously) perform some action, like picking out a box of cereal in the grocery store, and then only afterwards come to infer that we did this intentionally. If this is the true sequence of events, how could we be deceived into believing that we had intentionally made our choice before the consequences of this action were observed? This explanation for how we think of our agency would seem to require supernatural backwards causation, with our experience of conscious will being both a product and an apparent cause of behavior.
In a study just published in Psychological Science, Paul Bloom and I explore a radical—but non-magical—solution to this puzzle. Perhaps in the very moments that we experience a choice, our minds are rewriting history, fooling us into thinking that this choice—that was actually completed after its consequences were subconsciously perceived—was a choice that we had made all along.
Picture: Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
By Hanoch Ben-Yami
Adam Bear opens his article by mentioning a few cases such as pressing snooze on the alarm clock or picking a shirt out of the closet. He continues with an assertion about these cases, and with a question:
In each case, we conceive of ourselves as free agents, consciously guiding our bodies in purposeful ways. But what does science have to say about the true source of this experience?
This is a bad start. To be aware of ourselves as free agents is not to have an experience. There’s no special tickle which tells you you’re free, no “freedom itch.” Rather, to be aware of the fact that you acted freely is, among other things, to know that had you preferred to do something else in those circumstances, you would have done it. And in many circumstances we clearly know that this is the case, so in many circumstances we are aware that we act freely. No experience is involved, and so far there’s no question in Bear’s article for science to answer.
Continuing with his alleged experience, Bear writes:
…the psychologists Dan Wegner and Thalia Wheatley made a revolutionary proposal: The experience of intentionally willing an action, they suggested, is often nothing more than a post hoc causal inference that our thoughts caused some behavior.
More than a revolutionary proposal, this is an additional confusion. What might “intentionally willing an action” mean? Is it to be contrasted with non-intentionally willing an action? But what could this stand for? What can be said of us is that we do some things intentionally, in contrast with some other things which we do unintentionally. For instance, I stepped on the nail unintentionally: I didn’t even see it’s there; or I left the door open unintentionally: I didn’t think about it at all. To do something intentionally is to do it for some purpose. As can be seen, Wegner and Wheatley’s talk of an experience is again out of place here: no special experience is involved in doing something for a purpose. Moreover, no post hoc or other inference is required either: we can often say for what end we did what we did, and that’s enough in order to know that we did it intentionally. Instead of mentioning these trivialities, Wegner and Wheatley obscure things by mentioning the partly meaningless and partly irrelevant “experience of intentionally willing an action,” and additional things later on. And again, so far, nothing for science to explain.
Picture: I, Satyakamk [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons